Sunday, October 10, 2004

What has Vienna to do with Wittenberg?

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”


"Would you have the air full of worms?"

"That is the business of a sexton. If only the rest of the clergy understood it as well!"

G. K. Chesterton - Lilith

I want to thank Michael Spencer for his polemical piece against the marriage of psychology and Christianity, because it gave me the impetus to finally write this article, which has been on the back burner for a good while. While I am willing to concede a great many points to Mr. Spencer, I think some of his arguments are over-plentiful in conservative Christian circles to combat the wholesale acceptance of psychology among more liberal cohorts. I will instead direct my comments to the appropriate response of Christians who hold to an orthodox Christianity and the solas of the Reformation toward the field of psychology.

I first want to clarify what psychology is in order to address the concerns of Christians and present an alternative way of thinking about the issue.

That which is psychology

Psychology was built on the premise that scientific inquiry can yield useful information about the world. In particular, psychology is interested in the behavior and mental processes of human beings. Psychologists are interested in what things are universal traits of human beings (such as language acquisition) and what things vary by culture. Psychologists are also interested in individual differences between people within the same group, such as intelligence, personality traits, motivation, risk-taking propensity, academic and vocational interests, learning styles, and many more. Psychology is also interested in how the machinery of the brain works, how it develops and what happens to it with age. With the advent of the computer, the cognitive revolution has fundamentally changed the chief analogy of human behavior from machine-like (behavioristic input and output) to computer-like (capable of incorporating stored information into decision making and parallel processes). Psychology is also interested in the application of study, through technology, legislation (such as applying the study of human perceptual ability to speed-limit laws) and though direct human services.

Psychology as an academic discipline is roughly divided into two areas, pure experimental and applied. The applied disciplines of psychology influence a great many areas of life and include, Clinical psychology, Counseling psychology, Industrial/Organizational psychology, and School psychology.

Clinical psychologists are those that direct their study to the understanding and treatment of mental problems. Recently there has been a movement toward Empirically Validated Treatments or EVTs which are therapeutic interventions that are shown effective at treating various disorders. Examples would be cognitive-behavioral therapy for the treatment of depression or systematic desensitization for the treatment of a simple phobia (such as the inordinate fear of dogs.)

Counseling psychology grew out of the vocational guidance movement around the turn of the 20th century and retains an emphasis on helping individuals find suitable careers. Counseling psychology has been at the forefront of the Positive Psychology revolution, which endeavors to study the well-functioning of individuals and focuses on prevention rather than remediation of problems.

Industrial/Organizational psychology is the study of workplace behavior and the employer/employee relationship. Industrial psychology has been influential in helping business improve the satisfaction and productivity of their employees (which does not boil down to increases in pay as was once assumed).

Finally, School psychologists are generally responsible for monitoring and improving curricula, developing preventative programs and counseling students with problems.

I am in the process of being trained as a Counseling psychologist, so I can speak most knowledgeably about Counseling Psychology. Other information I have obtained by interaction with my colleagues in the Industrial/Organizational and Applied Cognitive Aging (gerontology) programs within my department, and through teaching Introduction to Psychology at the undergraduate level and helping to revamp the curriculum for this course.

The organization that represents the interests and regulates the ethical behavior of these psychologists is the American Psychological Association ( This organization is not responsible for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently in its fourth, text-revised edition; DSM-IV-TR) rather this is the product of the American Psychiatric Association ( There are substantial differences between Psychiatrists and Psychologists besides the obvious availability of psychoactive medications for psychiatrists (the American Psychological Association is currently supporting limited prescription rights for psychologists). Psychologists are much less likely to be psychoanalytically oriented (neo-neo-Freudian) than are psychiatrists. Psychologists are trained in either the scientist-practitioner model (Ph.D.) or the scholar-practitioner model (Psy.D.) while psychiatrists are trained in a medical model (M.D.). The title psychologist is a reserved title in most states, such that someone who is not licensed to provide psychological services by the state cannot use the term. Professional Counselors often operate on the Masters level and can be trained in a variety of approaches. They are regulated by the American Counseling Association and are similarly licensed in most states. Counselors are not frequently trained as scientists and are not permitted to independently administer psychological tests under most states' legislation.

Evangelical Fears

Evangelical Christianity's campaign against psychology represents a windmill-fighting campaign of epic proportions. There are two reasons that evangelicals fear psychology and tend to attack a straw enemy. On the one hand, some rightly think that psychology has grown out of a naturalistic and reductionistic worldview that tends to disregard the supernatural and on the other hand is the worry that psychology is setting itself up as a religion to replace Christianity for the common person.

#1. Psychology as Reductionism and Positivism

I heard a radio sermon by Erwin Lutzer (senior pastor at Moody Bible Church, a while ago that I am confident I remember well enough to quote from memory, because his statement so struck me as emblematic of one of the problems in American Christianity. He claimed that one need not have a brain to think, and in fact, that one will never think more clearly than the moment after death when separated from the body. Without getting into the noetic effects of the fall and the problematic doctrine of “soul sleep”, suffice it to say that I think Dr. Lutzer is wrong. In one fell stroke, Dr. Lutzer has reduced the brain to a vestigial organ and the doctrine of the resurrection to a frivolity. Modern American Christianity is dangerously Gnostic, in part because it fears the reductionistic claims of psychology. Psychology, it is thought, tries to explain away everything special about our humanity and our status as created in the Image of God with its thoroughgoing naturalism. This is indeed true historically. Psychology developed at the same time that evolutionary concepts were taking hold and strongly influencing life around the world. Psychology started with two camps, the Functionialists and the Structuralists, the former looking to discover the function of consciousness (its adaptive responses) and the latter looking for the structure of consciousness (the fundamental elements of sensory experience). Both thought no further than the physical. After a brief interest in the psychology of religion by such thinkers as Edwin Starbuck and the eminent William James, psychology largely lost its interest in religion, becoming thoroughly secular. Freud was reductionistic in his own right, seeking the fundamental motivational forces of human beings in innate forces within the personality. Recently, however, with the advent of postmodern thinking, the force of positivistic reductionism has been greatly reduced. The field of psychology has gradually realized that reality may not be entirely quantifiable and that ways of knowing beyond science have validity. There has been a realization the science itself is not a value-neutral enterprise in that data do not speak for themselves and must be interpreted by individuals who have biases, desires, and vested interests in the results of their work. It is this reduction in positivism throughout science, coupled with the realization that religion and spirituality are important aspects of the lives of a great many people, that have led psychology to re-examine religion after a significant hiatus. This new openness is seen by many integrationalist psychologists to be a road to the legitimacy of Christian belief structure and acceptance of biblical authority within psychology. The new openness to spirituality does not generally allow for definitive truth claims other than “this is true for me” (the flipside of postmodern thought).

Skepticism. The hallmark of science is skepticism. Psychology takes a critical look at popular wisdom or "Folk Psychology": our intuitive perception of how people function. Rather than discovering new and exciting things, psychologists often engage in disproving the reality of popular perception. An example of this is the perception that older people cannot be trained effectively for now work roles (you can't teach an old dog new tricks), when in reality, after slightly longer training, older people can bring more of their accumulated skills to bear in a new job environment. Psychologists become ingrained with a reflexive need to test the validity of a statement or observation against the standards of science much like a Biblically-oriented Christian reflexively tests truth and doctrinal claims by the standard of the Scriptures. Science can become a god for a scientist, (much like Scripture can become one's god) and result in a materialism that refuses the possibility of extra-material reality. Christians, more often than not, are not steeped in scripture enough to discern truth from falsehood, but rather search for a proof text, which they interpret to validate their preconceptions. This often takes the form of arguing from "is" to "ought" without a scriptural mandate. (i.e. women and men are different in the following vague ways, here is a verse that may be interpreted to support this, thus God must have made them different in these ways.) We are not permitted to maintain the status quo because it has always been that way. That is Conservativism, not Christianity. An empirical and skeptical approach (psychology) can test such claims of differences between groups with great accuracy.

One thing that is essential to remember in this conversation is that Psychology as a scientific discipline separate from the mother Philosophy is little over one hundred years of age. While this seems to Americans to be a long period, it is in fact very short for a science. Psychology is in its infancy, both because it is relatively young, and because of the extreme complexity of the subject matter. This is also why we are not to the point of being able to make a great deal of definitive, universal claims about human behavior. Indeed, within psychology, tentative conclusions and attention to study limitations is the rule. The purview of psychology is everything that pertains to human and animal behavior and mental processes. This is an extraordinary scope, which continues to become more unbelievable with each discovery, evidenced by the growing number of sub-disciplines within psychology.

#2. Psychology as its own Religion

The other fear within the Church is that which is reflected in the comments of Mr. Spencer, that psychological practitioners have become a group of modern mystics or keepers of esoteric wisdom necessary for humanity to transcend itself and become divine. This critique is appropriately leveled against some psychotherapy theories, not against the field as a whole. Every theory of psychotherapy or counseling must begin with a theory of human nature (anthropology) and of human problems (pathology). The revolution in psychotherapy began when humanistic theorists decided that human nature is fundamentally good and that outside influences corrupt us to give us problems. Additionally, problems were seen to be the result of conditions of worth (prerequisites for love) placed upon us unknowingly by parents and society (in Rogers' formulation) or from adhering to societal norms and not being truly oneself (in Perls' Gestalt formulation) or some other blending of societal and familial forces. The doctrine of the fall is often mustered against such theorizing, stating that we are not in fact naturally good, but naturally evil. One must remember that the fall, while twisting all parts of our human nature (total depravity), did not destroy the essential likeness of humanity to its Creator. People are meaning-making by their very nature, hence the danger of idolatry and the ease at which one begins to worship him or herself. The fall most certainly led to spiritual death, such that no person can muster the strength to be righteous in the eyes of God, indeed all such attempts are as “filthy rags.” The fall did not make us a bad as we could possibly be, as my former professor Dr. Paul Schaefer used to say, it did not turn us into grunting, drooling Gamorreans (a Star Wars reference.) This would be complete or utter depravity. People are able to grow in knowledge and even learn to get along better with others, to be unselfish and acquire many other virtues without being redeemed. Some people show extraordinary resilience, even when their circumstances are very bad indeed. This, then, is not the place at which we should be attacking psychology, but rather learning from it how to care for those who have been at some points in history neglected by society and the Church, though not without discernment.

Our problem with psychology does not seem to be its emphasis on empathic listening (the care of Souls has a long history in Christianity), nor in the application of behavior modification techniques such as contingent reinforcement, nor of medication necessarily. The real crux of the problem is that psychotherapy often engenders a love of the self that borders on worship, which Paul Vitz calls Selfism. Paul Vitz in his Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship (1977, 1994) makes the point that most psychotherapies have been built on the ideas that the self is the most important thing, that doing that which is natural to the self is the only valid motivation, and that authority that denies our self-fulfillment is the only true evil. Indeed, the cult of self-worship has infiltrated the Church as Mr. Spencer points out such that sermons frequently take on a theme of human worth in the eyes of God rather than the more appropriate reverse. This reaction to “wormy theology” was not born out of psychology, however, but borrowed from liberal theology a la Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Recent developments in counseling and psychotherapy have been moving away from a wholesale belief in human goodness, as evidenced by the admission by textbook authors that they view humanity as neither bad nor good (Pipes & Davenport, 1998). Additionally, eclectic practice of psychotherapy has largely taken the place of devotion to one viewpoint on why psychotherapy works. Instead, a reliance on the factors common to all therapies (such as empathic listening and support through behavior changes) has been increasing (Frank & Frank, 1991). Recent theorizing has also more strongly emphasized the responsibility of the client for his or her behavioral choices. While not universal in counseling, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward personal responsibility while recognizing external influences.

Psychology and Pop-Psychology

Frequently in the history of psychology, as in many areas of life, extreme personalities have driven the field to clarify its position and to consider alternate explanations, much like heresies arising in the Church required her to solidify doctrinal positions. Freud was an example of an individual who had a huge heuristic influence on psychology. Freud was not the founder of psychology, but he invented an anthropology and a theory of personality that were extremely thought provoking and frankly, society changing. Freud codified the concept of the unconscious which has been extremely popular, but bears little resemblance to the idea of the unconscious currently discussed in cognitive psychology, that of the inaccessible mental processing of information. Psychology should not be judged on the basis of what isolated, self-important individuals write or say. Psychology is serious about tolerance. They are even willing to entertain very strange sounding beliefs as long as they don't smack of being forced upon them (as Christianity is often perceived). Simply because you can find something claiming to be psychology that is anti-Christian does not mean that we can jettison the entire study of psychology. To do so would be like judging Christianity for belief in angels because Silvia Browne's book on Angels and Spirit Guides can be found in the religion section of our local Borders. Students are often drawn to psychology because of its association in the popular media with paranormal or parapsychological phenomena. I have had students tell me that they like to analyze their friends; therefore they want to study psychology. This is a misconception fostered by media portrayal of what a psychologist does and the limits of their abilities. Fringe psychological techniques and thinking (like Primal Scream Therapy) will continue to exist, much like fringe religious practices will persist. Because there is not psychological orthodoxy and because psychology is committed to tolerance of different ideas, some of these more "experimental" methods have gained brief acceptance, such as Timothy Leary's use of drugs in psychotherapy. The mainstream science and practice of psychology is categorically different from these extremes. Psychology does have a unique defense of goofiness that American Christianity lacks because of the use of scientific journals. If I wanted to forward an idea to my colleagues in the field, I would submit a paper to a journal where it would be reviewed by my peers before publication. If I happened to get something shady in print, I would still have to face the likelihood of rebuttal by other psychologists and failed attempts to replicate my study (if empirical). If I were to introduce a concept or term into my article that is not well defined and explained, I am unlikely to pass peer review. In American Christianity, anyone can write a book that dramatically influences the culture, without defining any terms and with few checks. Yes, psychologists often do publish self-help type books, but the reputable ones are full of references to journal articles to make their cases, rather than the author’s general opinion.

Mistakes. Admittedly, psychology has been mistaken. Science is not infallible and data does not interpret itself. Causality is often hard to discern (does violent TV make kids violent or do violent kids like to watch violent TV?). Interpretations have been misguided, such as the use of intelligence testing to give "scientific" credence to racism and eugenics in the 1920s. Scientific data can be misread; much like the Biblical text can be misread to justify some horrendous practices. The fundamental principle of skepticism is a guard against such misreading, but it is not infallible. We are probably in the process of making mistakes with psychology in the present, however we may popularly perceive some successes as failures. The insanity defense is very infrequently used in legal proceedings and is even less frequently successful (Myers, 2002). However a recent issue of The American Psychologist was devoted to the clarification and careful practice of forensic psychology, the more common use of psychology in the courtroom. For another example, some argue that we are over diagnosing and over medicating our children simply for being children. Diagnosis and testing are useful tools, used responsibly, to assess the needs of a student and the most likely way to help him or her. Labeling a student can put him or her on an academic track from which it is nearly impossible to be removed. On the other hand, it could be that we have been under-diagnosing children for decades and that some children who would otherwise have been considered dull, with the help of medication for attention deficit, may be able to succeed in school and life. I personally have not done the necessary study on this topic to offer an informed opinion. I can say, however, that diagnosis can give clinicians a way to communicate and researchers a way to measure treatment outcomes, but it can also serve as an excuse for future behavior (e.g., "I'm not responsible, my bipolar disorder made me do it.").

As for disorders, some, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have been observed to affect people at relatively consistent rates around the world. Some disorders are culturally generated, such as Anorexia Nervosa in the West. We in the West make many unwise decisions that affect our physical health (such as cigarette smoking and sedentary lifestyle) as well as our mental health (such as perhaps excessive rugged individualism). The fact that some people suffer from a problem that is in some ways culturally generated does not lessen the severity of the suffering or its potential harm. Saying that people should suck it up and get over their problem may be like telling them that since heart disease is the result of their lifestyle, that they should suck it up and cut out the heart attacks. Perhaps there is reparative work that must be done for some people to function well.

Can Psychology and Christianity Get Along?

Should psychology be taught from the pulpit of our Churches? Certainly not. The pulpit is a place for the preaching of Law and Gospel, nothing else, not politics, not sports, not opinion, not psychology. Should psychology be feared and divorced from the Church? No again. Psychology is a valid scientific enterprise that can inform our lives. We can learn how to better serve our members, to train them to be effective listeners, and even to think with clarity about doctrinal matters with the skepticism that psychology brings to the table (since we have lost the concept of logic within the Church). We cannot accept any psychological theory wholesale, just as we would not accept new doctrine without critical, Biblical discernment.

George Marsden ( spoke to Grove City College about the dearth of intellectualism in Christianity, which Mark Noll calls the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” It is his position that we need Christian scholars within academia. It is my contention that this includes the field of psychology. We need our young people to be salt and light, even into the highest levels of academia, where they can base their studies on Christian principles (not to "prove" the religion correct, but for the assistance of humanity and to combat error). I believe that we called to be salt and light, not to criticize the darkness for being unsavory. We should be encouraging our students to be scientists, not advising them to run from psychology. We need them to be skeptical of all that does not ring with the truth. We need to seriously talk about authority, what gives scripture authority and what gives science authority. The current research on Forgiveness by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Dr. Everett Worthington is a good example of this application of Christianity, not as doctrine but for enhancement of the counseling enterprise with a principle supported by revelation.

What then can we do?

Psychology is not a panacea. Self-help and counseling have not eliminated society’s problems and they certainly do not do the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. We need however to begin to talk more knowledgably and less reactively about psychology. I suggest the following as a point of departure for conversation and action in this matter:

Individuals need to hold their clergy accountable for using bad psychology (particularly outdated psychology from the '70s) and turning it into bad theology. Instead, we should encourage the psychologists among our members to discuss such topics with our ministers, train and lead lay counseling groups, and promote the health of church members.

We need to get our youth involved in real psychology. Why would we allow non-believers to dominate such a powerful tool as this? Witness what has become of the field of marketing from psychological findings. Like the study of physics, psychology can be dangerous if unchecked. Let us not react reflexively against everything we hear, but investigate the methodology used to come to the results presented and think hard about alternate explanations or implications to our theology. If we think we can do a better job, then we should certainly do so.

There are few Confessing Evangelical voices out there discussing what is actually going on in psychology, not what is assumed to be going on. Therefore I call thinking individuals to become aware of current thought in order to engage in conversation relevant to current research and clinical practice. Two sources of such information are the Monitor on Psychology (, the APA's popular publication for psychologists and the American Psychologist (, which is the scientific journal that each member of APA receives on a monthly basis. Publications in the American Psychologist are considered to be important for the entire field. These journals such should be available at even marginal libraries.

Finally, we ought to attack Selfism by its own name wherever it is found, not just in psychology but also in popular culture, in advertising, in the classroom and in the pulpit.


Frank, J. D. & Frank, J. B. (1991). Persuasion and healing: a comparative study of psychotherapy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Myers, D. G. (2002). Psychology (6TH ed.). New York: Worth.

Noll, M. A. (1994). The scandal of the evangelical mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Pipes, R. B. & Davenport, D. S. (1998). Introduction to psychotherapy: Common clinical wisdom. (2nd ed.) New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Vitz, P. C. (1994). Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship. (2nd ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.